Goessling, K., & Doyle, C. (2009). Thru the Lenz: Participatory Action Research, Photography, and Creative Process in an Urban High School. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 4(4), 343-365.


This study describes a youth photography project, Thru the Lenz, conducted at an urban high school in Portland, Oregon. Using Photovoice, a community photography approach that is a form of Participant Action Research, the project engaged a group of nine high school students who were members of an at-risk student intervention program (the Small Schools Initiative). Facilitated by psychology and counseling graduate students, student participants were asked to use photography to document their community in order to teach the facilitators about their daily lives. The facilitators guided students through photography education, photo sharing, and discussion. Throughout the program the youth were empowered as experts, exhibited positive relationship-building skills, and cultivated increased agency in their community as they documented and reflected on their lives. The study uses qualitative methods of data collection to create a case study.

Key Findings:

Art was a uniting interest for participants and facilitators. The students in the project did not have access to the arts in their school, but were enthusiastic in learning about photography. Through the photography project, students developed a heightened awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of their community as they explored and shared images. They began to take an interest in changing outside perceptions about their city as well as improving their environment. The project provided a forum to discuss cultural practices and beliefs. Another key aspect of the project was relationships (with facilitators, with friends, with families). Students found solidarity in their desire to be at school rather than home and although there were comparatively few photographs of families, this was the most significant theme for participants. Photographs of friends were also a prominent theme and central to discussions, images, and the process of the work.

Significance of the Findings:

Thru the Lenz was successful in establishing a mentoring/ partnering relationship between high school aged students and psychology counseling graduate students. The Photovoice method was effective in empowering the students as experts in their community, and the project positively changed the perceptions of the researchers through observing the photography by the students. In addition, students learned new skills in relationship and community building that empowered them as experts in their culture, family and community.


Nine urban high school students from an at-risk student intervention program (the Small Schools Initiative) in Portland, Oregon, participated in a Participant Action Research photography project called Thru the Lenz. Students met twice a week for two hours each with a team of graduate student facilitator/researchers. The facilitator/researchers began with a fully structured curriculum to teach students about the art and skill of photography and techniques in using a camera. The sessions became more unstructured and unfolded as an organic mentoring process once the students gained an aptitude for photography. Students were given assignments to photograph what they found personal value in, and structured discussions were facilitated around the subjects in their prints. Data was collected from participant photographs and discussions, a focus group at the conclusion of the program, participant journals, reflections from the facilitators, and a post-project interview. The data were analyzed using coding methods to extract themes.

Limitations of the Research:

In addition to the fields of arts education and mental health, this case study would benefit from grounding in youth development framework. The findings begin to illustrate connections to youth development outcomes, but fail to fully connect specifically to an established framework, which would strengthen the arts education outcomes.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What youth development outcomes can be documented and established in projects such as Thru the Lenz? Are there evaluation techniques that can be employed to gather stronger data on the effect of this program on adolescent behavior and beliefs? What specific evidence can be gathered to show how the art of photography empowers at-risk youth? Is there a difference between the impact on at-risk students compared to those who are not at-risk?